After all these years, the Bristol remains a seafood classic.

Going Coastal 

After all these years, the Bristol remains a seafood classic.

For much of the twentieth century, seafood meant one thing on the American coasts and another in the Midwest. For diners who were hundreds of miles from any ocean, fresh fish meant the stuff that came out of the rivers and streams closest to town -- catfish, Missouri trout, white bass. Later, when Kansas City became a railroad hub, it was easier to get "exotic" seafood like lobster, shrimp and sole crated here in refrigerated cars. For most Kansas Citians who came of age during World War II, the idea of going out for some seafood meant one thing: deep-fried shrimp.

Shrimp -- french-fried, butterflied or served chilled with cocktail sauce -- was the staple restaurant seafood until 1980, when a new restaurant arrived that changed not only the way most Kansas Citians thought about fish but also how they ate it. Two decades ago, when legendary local restaurateurs Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson decided to open an upscale seafood restaurant on the Country Club Plaza, even their employees thought they were out of their minds.

"Fresh seafood in the Midwest?" asks a laughing Mary Simpson, who worked at the Bristol soon after it opened and is now Capital Grille's managing partner. "People would look at each other and say, 'Yeah, right.' But they really did it well. The place looked great, it was vibrant and exciting, and the bar was packed. It became the place to be."

Bill Crooks, cofounder of the PB&J restaurant empire (Grand Street, Yia Yia's), began his career working for Gilbert and Robinson and remembers the original Bristol as "serving a great variety of seafood -- more than any other fish restaurant ever did -- and leading the way for mesquite cooking, which was totally new to this area.

"They installed two mesquite grills in the kitchen," Crooks continues, "then glassed in the grills so customers could see the cooks using these fragrant, hardwood cookers [that] impart a very distinct flavor to both seafood and steaks. It was a very innovative restaurant."

In the early 1980s, the old Bristol -- which had been installed in a new building that looked as if it had been there forever, thanks to a nineteenth-century stained-glass dome, an antique bar, lots of brass and cozy, velvet-draped alcoves -- was the hottest restaurant on the Plaza. It retained its popularity well into the 1990s, after the Gilbert-Robinson restaurant conglomerate was subdivided and sold off. But when another Plaza restaurateur, Nabil Haddad, coveted the prize location, the Bristol was sent packing in 1995. The seafood restaurant that replaced it, Haddad's expensively mounted Jules, sank like an iron anchor and is barely remembered today. The aforementioned Capital Grille occupies the space now.

But the Plaza's loss has been a Johnson County success story since the day the new Bristol Bar & Grill opened its doors in 1996, in a building at the edge of Leawood's Town Center Plaza. The dome came along, too, as did the mesquite grills and most of the recipes -- including the beloved drop biscuits, doled out hot from a metal tray by tong-wielding servers.

On one of my recent visits to the restaurant, I met a very chatty and animated woman who said she dines at the Bristol at least twice a month, when her boyfriend flies in from Atlanta for a visit. "He loves to eat those biscuits," she babbled happily. "He just adores them."

So does nearly everyone I've ever met -- to my amazement. The golden globs of baked dough are hardly haute cuisine. In fact, they taste exactly like the drop biscuits you make when you follow the recipe on a Bisquick box, but with a handful of extra sugar. ("A pretty close approximation of what the recipe is," a former Bristol cook confides. "They're baked fresh, or they used to be, from a prepackaged mix created for the restaurant.")

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